Being the Church in the World

By Robert Austell

I have heard a long list of ideas, critiques, strategies, models, and more about problems and solutions for the ailing Church. I’m all for strategic thinking, clever communication, and the next great thing, but in God’s grace, here’s something God stirred up with us not too long ago:

Let’s do what we’ve been doing faithfully for so long and let’s do it out there where our neighbors live.

We stopped and took a good, hard look at what being the church had been for us. We sent money and teams out for missions and service (and still do); but that was far away, even in the city where we live. Who was being the Church – being the body of Christ – to OUR neighbors… the literal ones?

There are three main neighborhoods on the street where our church is located. One large, winding neighborhood has about 1000 homes. Two other neighborhoods have about 500 each. That’s all off of our one-mile stretch of secondary road.  That’s about 10,000 people. There is one elementary school, one housing project, one apartment complex, two men’s group homes, four churches, a bus park ‘n’ ride (in OUR parking lot), and a shopping center. And 10,000 people!… sending kids to school there, shopping there, walking their dog there, driving by our church at least twice a day coming and going, making their home right there.

For a generation, we had been a Bible-studying, worship-loving, mission-sending, service-supporting, FRIENDLY congregation that gathered once or twice a week inside our building to draw near to God.

Anybody see the problem? Anybody see the OPPORTUNITY? We finally did.

The Wednesday Night Experiment

I told them we’d just give it a try. For goodness sake, we had dedicated every Wednesday night in January for the last 8 years STUDYING evangelism. And I wasn’t even asking for that. I just asked the sermon study group to have their same meeting down the street at the bookstore in the shopping center. I asked the group that was sharing prayer requests to go spend the first 30 min. of their time sharing requests while walking around the neighborhood. Another group went to the coffee shop down the street. “No assignment,” I said. “Just go do what you would have done here and do it there, and see if anything different happens.”

“Do we have to identify ourselves as being from the church?” they asked.

“No; just go do this there and see if anything different happens.” (I did add that for purposes of the experiment we would not take Bibles or circle up for prayer in the middle of the store or coffeeshop… didn’t want to just move “the walls” there.) I told them we’d just try it for 3-4 weeks and then come back to talk about it.

From the very first week and every week afterward, SOMETHING has happened. A server shared about a sick sister and asked for prayer. The coffee shop manager asked if we had any musicians who could do live, folky music (yes!). The book club decided to put a notice on the Internet about their neighborhood meeting and doubled interest and participation within a week. And I could go on and on!

What’s the point? Well several…

  1. NONE of those encounters – which turned into relationships – would have happened if we had continued having the sermon discussion, the prayer group, and the book club in the classrooms of the church. The groups would have studied and talked just as hard, but done so isolated from the neighbors – Church OUT OF the world. (Jesus prayed against this in John 17!)
  2. While the specifics are particular to us, the principle is not; we took what we were already good at and passionate about, and we took it outside the walls of the church – Church IN the world. (Jesus prayed about this, too!)
  3. It has dramatically changed how we understand “Church” and continues to unfold in ways we could not have imagined.

We’ve continued to ask the questions – now expanded far beyond Wednesday nights to everything we do: What does it mean for us to be the Church in the World?


Robert Austell has served as pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, since 2002. He is active in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is an active blogger at http://robertaustell.blogspot.com, where he writes about being the church in the world. He is also an accomplished musician and technophile, and loves integrating those two interests with ministry.

Photo credit: shutterstock/djem